by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Humility is a hard virtue to sell. While virtues like courage or wisdom are met with praise, humility, by its very definition, resists praise. Awards are given for wisdom and courage. There is no Grand Prize or Honorable Mention for humility. Humility had especially low appeal for the people in Jesus’s culture, particularly, of course, for those who were highly honored. The Ancient Near East culture valued honor above all else, and protecting one’s honor involved very different behaviors than those that humble living produces. Cultural anthropologists explain that the core values of the traditional Mediterranean culture, then and now, are honor and shame (Pilch 35). Our own Western culture does not elevate these values in the same way, so allow me to be more teachy than preachy for a moment to help us appreciate how challenging it must have been for Jesus to teach humility and model a counter-cultural way of giving up one’s place in the pecking order.
Honor in the Mediterranean culture is more a group value than an individual value. Honor is “publicly acknowledged” and shared by a family or other group. One person’s loss of honor affects his entire kinship group. Yes, I said HIS kinship group because honor is solely a male virtue that males maintain and defend for the family and which they have inherited from the family. Adult males in these cultures achieve or increase in honor through their engagement in public (verbal or physical) contests or displays of “strength, courage, daring, valor, generosity, and wisdom.” And in these societies “all social interaction outside the family [or the ingroup] is a contest for honor” (Malina 36). Readers of the Gospels see that happening regularly as the Pharisees and others challenge Jesus with difficult questions about scriptures, and he consistently bests them verbally up to a point. Honor is a positive value that can increase when a man is deemed to have won the contest. Of course, a man can be shamed and thus lose his honor.
A woman in such a culture, however, cannot attain honor except indirectly through the honor of her family. Shame is the given status of women. Women have shame. Think about the meaning of the phrase “Have you no shame?” and you’ll understand how the traditional Mediterranean culture conceived of women “having shame,” and having shame required them to remain in the private sphere, sheltered from the public eye. “The female domain is that of shame.” That is, shame “is presupposed and then maintained by a veil of privacy and of personal and sexual integrity.” To HAVE shame is a woman’s role “that she maintains through privacy, reserve, and purity” (Pilch and Malina 107).
To sum up this complex and foreign notion of honor and shame: “The range of persons that owe you respect is bound up with your male and female roles, which are also bound up with where you stand on the status ladder of your group” (Malina 30).
Jesus largely participated in these cultural expectations. Like all of us, Jesus was a product of his culture. As I’ve said, it’s easy to recognize how the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus’s verbal repartee with the authorities is typical of a well-established cultural practice by people aiming to shame another. But the Gospels show Jesus accruing honor at the expense of religious and civil authorities. That is, until his crucifixion, when Jesus’s torture was made all the worse by the many humiliations he endured without ever countering in kind. The Gospels emphasize the SHAME of the cross. But God’s resurrection of Jesus reverses that shame spectacularly.
So Jesus participated in this culture of honor and shame, yet Jesus also sometimes acted in very countercultural ways. His close associations with women were unusual in his culture. And at the dinner party he attended at the invitation of a prominent Pharisee, described in today’s Gospel lection, Jesus obliterated the mores of his culture. The pecking order that held that culture in place was threatened by what he did and said. Jesus was not just saying, as we might hear it, “Y’all, let’s be nice to folks who have less that we do and include them at this dinner.” He was not suggesting, “Mr. Pharisee, expand the invitation list to this little ol’ soiree.” He was not merely encouraging greater inclusion. He was threatening the core value of HONOR in his culture, upsetting the moral framework that maintained social order by challenging his host to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And Jesus supported his recommendation with a rationale that must have been incomprehensible to the prominent Pharisee, his host: Do this “and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14).
The narrator of this pericope explains that Jesus told the guests at the dinner “a parable.” But what follows doesn’t sound at all like a parable. It’s pointed advice for those gathered who’d been jockeying for the better seats at the table to gain honor. Listen again to verses 8-9:
8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
Jesus seems to offer the other guests a self-serving rationale to put others first. But the next sentence suggests that maybe this “advice” is a parable after all, because Jesus implies there’s an ultimate day of reckoning symbolized by the hypothetical wedding banquet: “11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus turns to/on his host, directly advising him to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind. It may seem ungracious for Jesus to implicitly criticize the host about the guest list, which included himself. Jesus was hardly making it easy for his host to live more humbly. If the host were to follow Jesus’s advice and include the “least,” he would open himself to shame. But of course to live like Jesus was to identify with the humble and live with humility, putting others’ needs first.
Clinical psychologist Michael Jolkovski is careful to distinguish humility from humiliation within a 21st Century Western culture. “Humiliation is a terribly painful and destructive emotional state. . . . It is an overwhelming experience of shame. . . Sometimes a person can be intentionally humiliated by another in a sadistic attack that is intended to strip away all dignity and self-esteem.”
“Humility, on the other hand,” he explains “is a relief. When individuals are able to gracefully accept that there are limits to their power and importance, and to not collapse into despair, shame, or impotent rage (when meeting failure or finitude), this is a developmental accomplishment. It marks the move from fantasy to reality, from omnipotence to competence. It is a gift at every stage of life — when a 2-year-old can accept that they are not actually in charge of everything, or when an aged person accepts that they need to a depend on others in a way they haven’t before. There’s a key element of being at peace. Contrary to humiliation, humility gives a person their dignity and equilibrium back. When they can move from the brittle, narcissistic belief that they would be in control of everything important in their lives, to a humbler acknowledgement that the human condition allows for little pockets of control, at best, they are able to adjust and adapt. This is where humility affords wonderful relief from humiliation” (http://workingthrough.com/blog/38-humility-and-humiliation).
To augment this psychological perspective, consider a spiritual perspective on humility from Richard Rohr: “Alongside all our knowing must be the equal and remaining ‘knowing that I do not know.’ That’s why the classic schools of prayer spoke of both kataphatic knowing—through images and words—and apophatic knowing—through silence, symbols, and beyond words. Apophatic knowing is the empty space around the words. With the Reformation in the 16th century, Western Christianity “lost the unique access point of the mystics, the poets, artists, and saints.” To know that we don’t know . . . is the foundation of a spirituality of humility. (https://cac.org/knowing-that-we-dont-know-2018-10-08/)
This humility Rohr and today’s Jesus story describe seems in stark contrast to the lack of humility we witness daily from our President. Sure, powerful people often have enormous egos. But it’s rare for someone to be so flagrantly egotistical and, as many assess, clinically narcissistic. I am genuinely sorry that something has misshapen his sense of self to the point that he’s incapable of putting someone else’s needs before his own and unable to imagine what someone else might feel or need or want. I am appalled by his oversized ego and undersized compassion and worry that his dismissive treatment of the most vulnerable could, over time, come to be seen as normal. To listen day in and day out to bombast as he inflates his own self-worth while denigrating others is something I think pastors and others who have a platform to discuss right behavior should address. Because Donald Trump has elevated himself to a position with great consequences for this world, it is important to name his hubris, that overweening pride the Greeks said leads eventually and inevitably to a downfall that can affect not just that individual leader but his people as well. We are creating a culture of insult and disdain when we elect people who think wealth and power are inherently honorable and when honorable folks who live with respect and concern for others are derided. And this is dangerous.
I also want to acknowledge that a call for humility might be heard differently by folks on the margins. Queer folks, poor folks, women, immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, differently abled people should be supported in ways that enhance their access to power and cultivate pride in who they are. It is, in fact, only from a position of strength and wholeness that we can live with true humility and not humiliation.
Discipleship requires humility. To follow Jesus, who was born in a manger and brutally executed as a common criminal, is to adopt Christ’s humble ways and thus give him honor. All glory and honor be to Christ Jesus who shows us the Way.
Malina, Bruce J. 2001. The New Testament World:Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Pilch, John J. 1999. The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. Collegeville, MN: The Order of St. Benedict.
Pilch, John J. and Bruce J. Malina. 1993. Handbook of Biblical Social Values. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.